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Darkest ‘Night’: A too-somber Shakespeare comedy

Are you trying to seduce me?: Olivia (left, played by Elizabeth Heflin) falls for Cesario, the male disguise of the shipwrecked Viola (Susanna Stahlmann), in the Polonsky Center’s somber production of “Twelfth Night.”
for Brooklyn Paper
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It’s an error of a comedy!

Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy “Twelfth Night” is one of his most commonly-performed plays, so each new production must find a way to distinguish itself. But draining the show of most of its laughs and giving it a somber tone — a tactic chosen by the version now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene — is not the way to go.

The plot, briefly: Viola, shipwrecked, disguises herself as a boy, enters the service of Duke Orsino, and falls in love with him. The Duke loves the countess Olivia, and sends his new servant to deliver messages of love to the Countess — who falls for the messenger instead. Add a wacky sub-plot with Olivia’s servants, a rival for Olivia’s hand, and the appearance of Viola’s identical twin brother, and chaos ensues.

But here, all the action seems muted, swamped by the set — a starkly austere assemblage of tarnished marble that seems more appropriate for “Julius Caesar.”

As Viola, and her male alter-ego Cesario, actress Susanna Stahlman handles the dark subject matter expertly, as she weeps for her lost brother, pines desperately for the Duke, and awkwardly handles the trappings of manhood. Matthew Greer is excellent as the emo Duke Orsino, and the play’s best scene is an unwritten moment between them, as the Duke unconsciously, and far too comfortably, drums his hands on his page Cesario while mouthing along to an angsty tune.

But the play’s funny moments — and it still has plenty, as characters collide in the second act — are continually undercut, losing momentum to melancholy songs and staid scenes. And one late bit, when a humiliated Orsino actually points a gun at the woman he loves, is an all-too-real point of no return.

By giving “Twelfth Night” a melancholy edge, the company is clearly trying to ground this frothy comedy in real emotion, but it winds up just running aground.

“The Acting Company Presents Twelfth Night” at Polonksy Shakespeare Center [262 Ashland Pl. between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, (866) 811–4111, www.tfana.org]. Through May 27, Tue–Sat at 7:30 pm; Sat–Sun at 2 pm. $70 ($20 students and people younger than 30).

Updated 5:44 pm, July 9, 2018
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